We all know the famous idiomatic metaphor “Reinventing the wheel,” and none of us did reinvent the wheel. But who did invent it? The wheel is viewed as the archetype of human ingenuity, and we cannot imagine a world without it. But there was a time when the wheel didn’t exist and it needed to be invented. So, we are here to answer this simple question:
Who created the wheel?
The short answer is: that nobody knows the name of the person who got the idea to create “a circular object that revolves on an axle and is fixed below a vehicle or other object to enable it to move easily over the ground.” Why? Because it was a long, long time ago.
From what was found by archeological researchers around the wheel, the first proof of the existence of the wheel led to believe that it was invented in Mesopotamia around 4000 BC. Where was Mesopotamia you may ask? It’s an ancient historical area in what is now Iraq and the surrounding areas, between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. This was where the Sumerians and Akkadians lived.
The first wheel that we know of…
You may think that the first wheel was used to move some sort of vehicle, but that was not the case. The oldest wheel known to men was a potter’s wheel—the machine used in the shaping of round ceramic ware. Yes, pottery.
There are some indications that this type of wheel was in use for a long time, but we are using the one that can be dated as a reference. That’s why it’s hard to tell when and by whom the wheel was invented.
As communication was certainly not what it is today, the invention of the wheel didn’t change the world in one day. In fact, more than one person had the opportunity to invent the wheel. There was probably more than one inventor who revolutionized pottery. And we will never know who they were.
When we talk about the wheel, we mostly think about the one we are using on cars. That type of wheel first appeared around 3500 BC in Europe and Asia. The fact that it was used to move things around in wagons helped its quick adoption around the world.
What was used before the wheel?
Moving things around was a need that preceded the invention of the wheel, as you may have guessed. People used other round objects to do that. The Mesopotamians, as well as the Egyptians, used what was called “rollers,” or big logs put underneath heavy objects or equipment. That’s how the Polynesians moved the stone moai statues on Easter Island.
Why did it take so long to invent the wheel?
First, most human inventions are derived from what already exists in the environment. But nature didn’t provide us with examples of wheels, it needed to be invented. Somebody had to think of it, to design it, and to build it.
It was a time when we did not have perfectly flat roads everywhere, that’s why it is vastly believed that the first planked roadway appeared at the same time—and it also led to a new use of horses and oxen as they were required to move the wagons equipped with those new wheels.
Wheels were so useful, that the world changed quickly. It seemed that it was adopted almost simultaneously in Europe and Eurasia. We had to adapt our landscape to use them.
And don’t forget, the wheel by itself was useless, it needed the axle to work (metal tools were needed to do that), and that was clearly the hard part to figure out.
Where did the word “wheel” come from?
According to Oxford Languages, here are the origins of the word “wheel”: Old English hwēol (noun), of Germanic origin, from an Indo-European root shared by Sanskrit cakra “wheel, circle” and Greek kuklos “circle.”
The different kinds of wheels
From the full wooden disks with a hole in the middle to what we have today, the wheel changed a bit. The first use of a spoked wheel is credited to The Egyptians, we found them on their chariots around the year 2000 BC. It was the Greeks that first introduced the cross-bar—or H-type—wheel. Also, the first iron rims around the wheel were seen on Celtic chariots in 1000 BC.
After that, the first real innovation came in 1802 when G.F. Bauer registered a patent for the first wire tension spoke—a length of wire threaded through the rim of the wheel and secured at both ends to the hub. It became the standard for bicycle wheels.
The next big step for the wheel was the pneumatic tire, which was first patented in 1845 by R.W. Thompson. The Scottish veterinarian John Dunlop improved on it in 1888 and patented it. His tires replaced the hard rubber used by all bicycles at that time.
In 1889, Edouard Michelin made bicycle tires easier to change and repair. His inflatable tires were quickly adapted for use on motor vehicles. In 1910, the B.F. Goodrich Company invented longer life tires by adding carbon to the rubber.
Nowadays, when we speak about car wheels, we really talk about rims and tires—rims being the outer portion of the wheel where the tire is mounted.
What did the invention of the wheel change?
Everything for the farmers, of course. You could do a lot more with fewer people. In fact, farming could become a simple family venture.
Also, the wheel opened the road. People didn’t need to stay near a river anymore, they could move around quickly and start exploiting new territories. As a result, the economic systems evolved, the way people lived changed, and even the way wars were conducted was not the same on wheels.
With this newly gained mobility, cultures got mixed—and with them their languages. The invention of the wheel changed the world forever.
The Reinvention of the Wheel
Turns out, one man did legally reinvent the wheel. In 2001, patent lawyer John Keogh from Melbourne registered a patent for a “circular transportation facilitation device.” He didn’t really reinvent the wheel, he just wanted to show flaws in a new Australian intellectual property law at that time.
Want to know about another great invention? I wrote about who invented Ice Cream?